General Lauris Norstad, head of Allied Forces in Europe (1956-1963), stated “The Bay of Pigs is the worst defeat of the United States since the War of 1812,” in his analysis of the U.S. government’s failed invasion of Cuba at Playa Girón, on the Bay of Pigs, in 1961.
The War of 1812, unleashed and lost by the U.S. against Canada, was the first attempt at expansion by the 13 colonies which constituted the country in 1776.
Once free of the English, some of the new country’s founding fathers proclaimed that they had been chosen by God to guide the rest of the world, and expand to the west and south.
Playa Girón is related to many of the most important issues of the 20th century, including the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the Churchill-Truman alliance; Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the CIA; anti-communism; the Cold War; McCarthyism; neoliberalism; and the growth of the military-industrial complex. The Bay of Pigs is also linked to the war in Vietnam, those in the Middle East (Palestine, Iraq, Syria) Afghanistan, Ukraine, and the mysterious death of Franklin D. Roosevelt – given his opinions about the use of the atomic bomb, the establishment of Israel, and Churchill, himself.
Bienvenido Pérez Salazar lived through the invasion at Fidel Castro’s side. He was so accustomed to people calling him Chicho that he didn’t even answer to his given name. Bienvenido was the head of Fidel’s personal security unit, and was on duty in the building on 11th Street in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado, where Fidel lived. On the night of April 16-17, the Comandante had gone to bed to try and sleep a bit, since he hadn’t done so since the aerial attacks of the 15th on airports in San Antonio, Ciudad Libertad and Santiago de Cuba. He had buried the dead and given the speech proclaiming the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution.
All was quiet, and suddenly, close to midnight, Fidel got up and began to request phone calls to different military officers; he was taking long steps, pacing in the hall, saying, “They have landed, and where I had supposed. We are going to crush them.”
Bienvenido reports, “He was pacing, and placed his hands on the wall, as if he were shifting from one side of the hall to the other, while reciting verses of the national anthem. Suddenly he stopped and shouted loudly: Viva Cuba Libre! He made a gesture with his hand and said: Let’s go. He went down the stairs taking huge strides, stopped on the sidewalk a few seconds and repeated: We are going to crush them. (1)
Fidel took a seat in the black 1960 Oldsmobile he used. His personal assistant took the front seat, Captain Alfredo Gamonal, who had just recently left his job in a store, La Sortija on Monte. At the wheel was Jesús López Monteavaro, and the rest of the escort unit was divided up between this and two other vehicles. They took 12th Street to 36th, in Kohly, where the Chiefs of Staff were located, a site known as Point One. There the head of the command, Comandante Sergio del Valle, followed Fidel’s lead in rapidly organizing the companies, battalions and officers who would repel the invasion.
The Comandante en Jefe made contact with the Australia sugar mill at 3:29am, and confirmed the landing of troops on Playa Larga and Playa Girón, in the Bay of Pigs, bordering the Zapata Peninsula in Matanzas, where fighting had begun. He ordered the 339th battalion to advance toward Playa Larga from the Australia, and the Militia Leaders School of Matanzas, with Captain José R. Fernández in charge, to depart toward Playa Larga and Aguada de Pasajeros, to take Pálpite and prevent the enemy from establishing a beachhead which was their strategic objective. He ordered militias in Matanzas to advance immediately toward Jovellanos.
Fidel alerted the José Martí Special Column No 1, en Cojímar, which he himself had organized. Officers Haroldo Ferrer and Leopoldo Cintra Frías, heads of infantry and artillery respectively, were in charge. He alerted the reserve battalions, and stationed a column at the Covadonga sugar mill, sent an anti-tank unit there, as well as one to Girón, and another column to Cayo Ramona. He moved 120 mortar launchers toward Girón.
The enemy landing took place at a site that would be difficult to recover, since the roads leading to the area crossed many kilometers of swampland where military maneuvering was impossible. The invaders dropped three parachute platoons into the muddy wetlands, and tried to close the road between Playa Larga and the Australia, but the militias’ resistance practically annihilated them.
Fidel kept in touch with the commanders Raúl Castro, who was heading the defense in eastern provinces; Juan Almeida and Ernesto Che Guevara, in the central and far western regions, respectively. He directed Almeida to dispatch several battalions of troops to the east of Girón, to surround the enemy; and Captain Osmani Cienfuegos, head of Havana’s Sector 4 defense unit which included the northern coast from the city to Mariel, to get all of his battalions ready for operations. He situated Universo Sanchez with four anti-tank units south of Pinar del Río.
The invasion’s political and military preparation
Volume X of the FRUS (Foreign Relations of the United States document collection) on Cuba (1961-1962) published by the Department of State, along with the department’s Volume VI for 1958-1960, contain much information revealing the aggressive face of the U.S. leading up to and during the invasion, which they presented as a figment of Cuba’s imagination. The CIA’s plans to crush the Revolution had as their central axis the assassination of Fidel.
Richard Bissell, CIA deputy director very close to Allen Dulles, met with Colonel Sheffield Edwards, head of the agency’s security office, on the morning of August 18, 1960. Bissell told Edwards that he had explicit instructions to kill the Fidel. The decision had been approved by Eisenhower.
Since 1975, details about this meeting have been available in a report from the Senate Special Committee headed by Senator Frank Church‚ which states that, in August of 1960, the CIA contacted mafia bosses John Roselli, Santos Trafficante and Sam Biancana to direct the assassination, and craft several plans, just in case. The magazine U. S. News and World Report called on the government to act quickly, since the Cuban Revolution was growing stronger every day.
Another of Dulles’ objectives was to push Cuba toward a closer relationship with the socialist camp, so that these ties could be used as “justification” for punitive U.S. actions.
Everything appeared to be well planned. Aerial attacks were to take place before the landing, to destroy or neutralize Cuban aircraft. The invading forces had as their primary goal establishing and defending a small area – a beachhead – that, in the best of outcomes, would include an airport and access to the sea, to facilitate logistical support. The plan was to establish a “provisional government” in the area controlled, which could be recognized and offered direct military aid by the United States, and others. The way would thus be paved for U.S. military intervention and the overthrow of the revolutionary government.
There goes Fidel!
Fidel continued the whole time giving instructions on the phone and checking to see how they were being carried out. His focus was on frustrating the enemy’s plans within 72 hours, to prevent the forces organized and financed by the CIA from establishing themselves and calling for direct intervention by U.S. armed forces.
At 3:00 p.m. departing with Fidel for the combat zone were Commanders Flavio Bravo and René Vallejo, Captains Gamonal and Eugenio Teruel, assistant to Raúl Castro, and members of the escort unit. On the way to Zapata, they saw that the entire people was mobilized. Every time someone was able to see Fidel in the car, shouts rang out, “There goes Fidel! Look, there goes the man.” (2)
The first person who saw him, at a bus stop, on a corner, made the announcement so that others might see for themselves, and the phrase was repeated over and over, “There goes Fidel.”
Seeing Fidel taking his battle station filled the people with valor and conviction.
Around 4:00pm, they arrived at the Australia mill, where Fernández had established a command post. He reported that enemy planes bearing Cuban insignia had tricked the troops, making friendly gestures with their wings before machine gunning the soldiers, causing many losses. Fidel reported that reinforcements were on their way, and reorganized the battle at Playa Larga, which had yet to be recovered.
He directed air force leaders to organize two squadrons including two Sea Fury planes, a B-26 and a T-33. When Fidel followed up to ask about the squadrons, a pilot, Captain Enrique Carreras, was put on the phone. Carreras has recalled in several interviews conducted later that Fidel had visited his base often prior to the attacks, insisting that the few fighter planes be in good condition and dispersed, to avoid their destruction by enemy forces. Since they were hidden in various locations, the Pentagon apparently thought that Cuba’s limited air power had in fact been destroyed completely. Saving the few planes which were deployed to the Bay of Pigs was decisive.
Fidel directed Carreras to attack the enemy’s boats and he fired on the USS Houston, chock full of troops and military supplies. The ship’s anti-aircraft defense was intense; dozens of machine guns and launchers returned fire. Carreras launched his rockets, and to his surprise, hit the target and the Houston began to sink. He damaged another boat and downed a B-26.
Fidel insisted that it was more important to sink the ships transporting troops, rather than the invaders already on land. They carried the reinforcements, the military equipment, food, and supplies which would allow the invasion to survive.
The outpouring of courage shown by the Cuban people, the leadership, Fidel’s orders and direct contact with combatants, especially his insistence that the victory be achieved within 72 hours, to prevent any chance of intervention by regular U.S. armed forces.
(1) Elvin Fontaine Ortiz. Fidel Desde el punto Uno a Playa Girón. Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2014. La Habana, p.56